What Linsanity Reveals About Our Nation

The racially tinged headlines and tweets about basketball sensation Jeremy Lin are a reflection of our country’s discomfort with its growing diversity, says Sam Fulwood III.

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Jeremy Lin came out of nowhere to turn the New York Knicks' season around, but the conversation about his unlikely rise to fame has often included a racial component.  (AP/ Kathy Knomicek)
Jeremy Lin came out of nowhere to turn the New York Knicks' season around, but the conversation about his unlikely rise to fame has often included a racial component.  (AP/ Kathy Knomicek)

(Disclaimer: I know this space is typically reserved for matters of serious report, like politics and, well, more politics. Rest assured I’ll return to politics soon enough. And for my faithful readers who know nothing of sports save the ins and outs of the presidential horserace or the ups and downs of congressional polling statistics, bear with me because you’re going to learn something very important about the character of our nation that politicians are unlikely to share with you.)

Linsanity has overtaken almost everyone I’ve spoken with during the past week.

In the incredible case you’ve escaped it, Linsanity refers to the global obsession–or craze–with Jeremy Lin, the professional basketball player whose play for the erstwhile forlorn New York Knicks has set everyone atwitter with his out-of-nowhere story. He was the star of his state-champion high school team in Palo Alto, California, but wasn’t highly recruited to play college ball. Instead of accepting a walk-on role, he enrolled at Harvard, a school better known for brains than brawn. He excelled in the classroom and on the court, but after graduation was overlooked by NBA scouts.

Surprisingly, to me, I’m no exception to the Linsanity madness. I love college basketball, but generally yawn when it comes to the professional game. But I’ll admit that I’ve succumbed and can’t get enough of the guy. Or his amazing story.

Unfortunately, all this celebrity carries a racial edge to it, which is the part that fascinates me most. Lin is an American whose parents emigrated from Taiwan to the United States in the mid-1970s. He’s one of the few Asian Americans to ever play in the National Basketball Association and the first of Taiwanese heritage.

After posting a 7-15 record to begin this strike-shortened NBA season, the Knicks have gone 8-2 in the two weeks since Lin became the starting point guard. After Lin scored 38 points against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 10 and fired the last-second game winner over the Toronto Raptors on Valentine’s Day, his star glowed brighter than all the lights on Broadway.

Everybody is talking about Lin, from grizzled sports writers to Bible-toting Baptists to even (here’s an odd-fellows political tie-in) the president, a Tea Party activist, and a former GOP vice presidential nominee. All cheered their support.

But that hasn’t stopped the nasty boo-birds. Lin’s success brought out the racist stereotypes and ugly words from folks who should know better. Boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr. tweeted that the media is making too much of him because he’s an Asian American. Nationally syndicated sports columnist Jason Whitlock apologized for making a crude joke at Lin’s expense. And an offensive headline popped up on ESPN’s website that forced the sports outlet to fire a writer, suspend an anchor, and apologize profusely to Lin and the entire Asian American community. But perhaps the racial insanity reached its zenith with a tasteless Saturday Night Live opening sketch.

The subtle (and not-so-subtle) racial nature of this chatter reveals less about Lin’s hoop dreams and so much more about our discomfiture with the changing diversity of our nation. The outbreak of racial puns and sophomoric humor is a shiny mirror that reflects what many Americans may feel but know better than to say out loud.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)